Today is World Refugee Day, commemorated annually as such since the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed vide Resolution 55/76 to mark June 20, 2001 as the first such day following the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Indeed, the past few years have seen many forced to flee their homes due to wars and conflicts occurring in various parts of the world, notably Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Myanmar as well as to escape widespread famine caused by the onslaught of global warming and escalation of climate change happening in places such as India and Africa due to, among others, inaction on the part of governments to mitigate the same ever since the Paris Agreement was agreed in December 2015.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change will displace hundreds of millions of people by the end of this century, increasing the risk of violent conflict and wiping trillions of dollars off the global economy if further action is not taken soon to mitigate its effects.
These refugees, many of whom are women and children, must cross global borders and navigate deep seas, risking their lives in pursuit of safety and survival.
Worse still, these refugees, particularly those Syrian refugees who have fled or intend to flee to Europe via Turkey, are not well received and are often forced to fend for themselves against an unwelcoming migration system that treats them as political capital and bargaining chips between the Turkish and European governments, instead of due recognition of their status as human beings with basic rights, namely the right to be safe from any form of harm, the right to live peacefully as well as the right to work and obtain an education.
The Rohingya Muslims, another well-known persecuted group native to Myanmar, are not recognised as citizens by that country and were most recently in 2015 forced to abscond their homeland in large numbers and migrate all over South-East Asia to escape brutal suppression of their personal, religious and economic liberty by the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists tacitly condoned by the supposed liberal democratic government headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi, who continues to turn a blind eye to their internationally recognised plight.
Last but not least, let us not forget the Palestinians, who are people forced to exist without a homeland since the creation of Israel in 1948, their right of return to an independent state of their own denied them for nearly 70 years now.
In Malaysia, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are some 154,140 registered refugees and asylum seekers as of April 2016. Of these, 139,780 are from Myanmar comprising mainly Burmese Chins and Rohingya Muslims, while 14,370 are from other countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine.
In 2015, the Malaysian government announced that Rohingya refugees would be allowed to seek employment in certain pre-approved economic sectors. This was followed by a statement in December 2015 that the government would accept 3,000 Syrian refugees over a period of three years and offer them shelter, employment and access to education for their children.
Tangible progress yet to be seen
While these initiatives on the part of the government are praiseworthy, any tangible progress is yet to be seen on the ground with respect thereto.
Further, some refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia remain detained indefinitely, and those that have been freed remain subject to arbitrary arrest, ill treatment and discrimination, in particular those who do not register with the UNHCR due to non-recognition of their immigration status in the absence of accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Given that Islam is the religion of our nation pursuant to Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution and that the World Refugee Day falls within the Islamic holy month of Ramadan this year in particular, the Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (CENTHRA) takes this occasion to reiterate its urging for the government to show some Islamic compassion and mercy, as laid down by the injunctions of Islam stated in the Holy Quran and Sunnah by ratifying and acceding to the 1951 Refugee Convention without delay, and immediately implement prior stated initiatives to assist refugees already within Malaysia.
CENTHRA strongly believes that providing Rohingya and Syrian refugees with the right to work, in particular, not only alleviates their suffering by allowing them a dignified means of earning a living, but would also pay of dividends in the form of a boost to Malaysian work productivity and competitiveness and help boost the local economy.
Furthermore, CENTHRA believes that these initiatives should not be confined to refugees and asylum seekers from any one part of the world, but must be open to all refugees. CENTHRA urges the Government to formulate a comprehensive and systematic SEE (Shelter, Education and Employment) programme for all refugees in Malaysia, with training in vocational skills as well as in learning the national language, English language, religion and cultural matters to enable greater integration with and acceptance by Malaysian society.
CENTHRA also urges Malaysia to do its part to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the harsher effects of climate change in view of their effects on the livelihood of nations from which refugees and asylum seekers are from to contribute to global efforts to prevent the likelihood of more refugees and asylum seekers having to flee their homelands on account of global warming and climate change in the future.
CENTHRA also notes that the UNHCR will be marking today’s World Refugee Day with a #WithRefugees petition, aimed at ensure every refugee child gets an education, every refugee family has somewhere safe to live and every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.
CENTHRA fully supports this urging by the UNHCR and urges all Malaysians to stand in solidarity #WithRefugees by signing the petition, and urging the government to act on the stated goals within. Let us all Malaysians regardless of faith and ethnicity stand in solidarity #WithRefugees this World Refugee Day.
AZRIL MOHD AMIN is a lawyer and chief executive of the Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (CENTHRA).